The UK Government has confirmed that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are released from restrictions placed during Covid-19 lockdown and can now resume ‘business as usual’ for face-to-face teaching from September 2021 (UK Gov, Department for Education, July 2021). Nevertheless, the disruption caused by Covid-19 has opened our eyes to the new possibilities of working through a hybrid digital-physical regime. And while many academics may have developed mixed feelings about the ‘domestic’ model of work as the pandemic crept along, a strict reversion to ‘on site’ working would also feel unnatural and fraught with its own complications.
It may come as little surprise that those who govern and lead HEIs have long been contemplating how they can bring together the best of both the digital and physical worlds to improve the needs of the staff, students, and the business alike. Of course, no large-scale structural regime changes come about without their own potential challenges and pitfalls, and visions of a new normal still require a great deal of thought and analysis. Institutions like Advance HE, an educational charity that works closely with HEIs to improve governance, reliability, delivery, and outcomes of the higher education sector, recently commissioned a project (Hybrid Higher) to generate and compile senior leadership insights for a hybrid operating model.
The key areas of discussion were operational effectiveness, leadership and team integrity, and fairness and inclusion. While this clearly signals an overarching commitment to taking the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to improve the efficiency, sustainability, and welfare of the HEI workspace, as individual academics, we shouldn’t disclaim or underestimate our own responsibilities for realising such agendas for improvement. While much of the planning and resources for any (post) pandemic HEI transition must come from the top, the microstructure of your day-to-day activities will matter for the consolidation of new or changing HEI policies and practices.
Since many HEIs are still in the process of shaping these policies and practices for the return on site, it is a timely opportunity for us as academics to think about the lessons learned over the past 18 months, and to flag areas for optimising our day-to-day routines. This does not need to be a wholesale recalibration of your work-life balance but rather can develop organically from determination, conscientiousness, and preparedness in dealing with the expectations of your family, colleagues, and students. The following are some tips for coming to ‘know’ your blended workplace.
Know your Portal:
It is likely that HEIs have invested in significant communications and technology infrastructure and capacity over the last 18 months. And while many of us might have naturally developed the operational savvy to record a Zoom meeting, it is not every day that we might pay homage to our employing institution’s online staff portal or homepage. This is an underappreciated source of relevant insight into the strategic direction of the HEI, digital enhancements, new opportunities for involvement, and health and safety guidance. The latter is perhaps the most crucial to be aware of in the coming transitional period. The institutional staff portal should be treated as your central point for critically assessing the HEI roadmap and how you can leverage your role going forward. This applies not only to your employer but also to other professional bodies you may be part of. One key source of information is the meeting papers of your HEI’s Council, Senate, or other governing body. These would contain regular updates on how senior leadership intend to position the institution, and can be used to inform your own concerns, which you can then take to your Academic Representatives.
Know your Tools:
As a corollary to the points above, it is prudent for us academics to recapture efficiency in our online activities as far as possible. While many of us may have had a ‘teething’ period during the early days of Covid-19 in working through unreliable internet connections, smaller screens, and domestic disruptions, a case remains for demanding a technological environment that we can control and manipulate to our advantage when switching between your workstation at home and your office. One simple action is to setup your Outlook or other email client in a way that allows you to work best. This may range from customising your display, the way email trails are foldered, rules for incoming messages, syncing between calendars, and using keyboard shortcuts (Windows, Macs). Similar ideas apply to those who work with other applications like Excel, where a little dexterity can go a long way. Researchers should consider honing their proficiencies in reference management software like Endnote, and accounting or project management tools for developing grant proposals. Learning management systems like Moodle have become the norm, even before the pandemic, but the key going forward is to use the features to your advantage to minimise any transitional strain on your workloads. It may be helpful to have ‘cheat sheets’ handy for those applications and features that you will rely on the most.
Know your Limits:
It is essential that you take some time to reflect on how the past 18-months have affected your health and wellbeing. Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of working from home is important so you can adjust your comfort levels for working healthily and efficiently. For instance, depending on your schedule and time spent being physically present in the office or around your HEI campus will determine what kinds of meetings you can, or even should attend. It will be more important in the transition to think critically about your contribution and purpose for every formal engagement with your colleagues, HEI-sanctioned groups, and even your students when it comes to ‘drop-in’ hours. Maintaining wellbeing as academics is paramount and must be balanced with your duties to your employing HEI, colleagues and students, particularly in the new landscape where higher education is seen as a consumer service, and these duties are akin to providing ‘customer satisfaction’. Remember that even in systems that appear to be functioning smoothly, there is always the potential for biases, inefficiencies, and abuse of procedures. Should you have doubts in your capacity or level of inclusion, seek support through your line manager, union representatives, and your institutions’ health and safety or wellbeing services where possible.